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Lesson 2.10

Student Voices:
What is the Role of the Student in Education Change?

Students lack influence in schools for this practical reason.

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Students generally play a very small role in defining or governing the school system that educates them. Although preparing students for their future is the whole point, it is generally agreed that adults are to run the show; students are to focus on learning.

Technology and budget pressures are gradually softening the teacher-led model of schooling. In large classes with diverse learning needs, some teachers enlist students as tutors and peer leaders. The availability of self-paced learning materials online may be changing the way that children learn.

Students' Role As Official Participants

Students have little influence on education policy for a simple reason: it's written during school hours.

It is possible for students to play a role in the operation and improvement of their school. Students occasionally are asked to serve on school committees or school boards. The California State Board of Education includes a voting student member due to student advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s. A sufficient number of school boards include students to warrant a small specialized track at the California School Board Association's annual conference. Most of these students hold a non-voting "advisory" seat.

California school boards are now required to include a student member, but only if enough high school students petition for it.

In most cases, students are spectators in the decisions about their schools, without a formal role in making them. Some question whether it is appropriate for students to play a role in school governance. Even when their role as a student is advisory, students have a spotty record of success in influencing legislation. Aside from inexperience, students face a practical obstacle to participating in education policy: decisions are made during school hours.

As of January 1, 2018, California law requires school districts to include a student member on their board, if petitioned by enough high school students. The bill creating this change passed into law with little opposition, but as always follow-through requires diligence. As of early 2018 it was difficult to find school board web sites that include a student member on their roster.

Student participation in school governance makes sense from an educational perspective; one of the roles of public education is to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in a democracy. Some nonprofit organizations such as the California Association of Student Councils (CASC) and Junior Statesmen of America provide young people with important experiences in this realm. Students in California can pre-register at age 16 to vote when they turn 18.

Meanwhile, many schools have eliminated civic education in part due to funding pressures and increased focus on tested subjects. In 2013, state officials created the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning to examine cost-effective options to engage students in civic learning.

Student Voice

Some nonprofit organizations provide students with opportunities to organize and participate in decisions about their education. For example, Californians for Justice organizes students to express their interests in matters of education policy that affect them, such as the Local Control Funding Formula. The California Association of Student Councils convenes students to develop policy recommendations through gatherings such as its annual Student Advisory Board of Education conference.

Student insight

The California State Board of Education includes a voting student member appointed by the Governor.

WestEd collects information about student perceptions and experiences related to school climate and many other aspects of their learning experiences using the California Healthy Kids Survey. The results, available for the state as a whole and by school district and county, provide insights into how different groups of young people see their school experiences.

Students have a lot to say about their schools. When confident teachers and school leaders take time to ask students for their feedback or advice, they generally find it enlightening. Some schools, with success, are involving students in work that they are uniquely qualified to do: evaluating teachers.

Updated September 2018


The California State Board of Education includes a voting student position. Which of the following is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 11, 2016 at 12:56 pm
The Student Voices Campaign
The Student Voices Campaign provides a creative way for young people to make their voices heard in their local school district.
Launched by the California Alliance for Arts Education, the campaign invites students in grades 7-12 to create videos that share their vision for better schools and their education and share them with school district leaders as part of the annual Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) planning process between November 10, 2015 and April 1, 2016.
Find out more:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 16, 2015 at 1:04 pm
Michael McFarland, the 2015-16 student member of the California State Board of Education, interviewed by Ed100's Carol Kocivar on KALW: Each year about 200 students apply for the one-year position. Michael is from Palos Verdes, CA.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 11, 2015 at 10:32 am
What happens when students are asked to make decisions about a school's budget? Students at Overfelt High School in San Jose were given control over $50,000. What did they do with it? (Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this one to read the conversation...)
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm
Californians for Justice studied methods of seeking student feedback at four high schools in 2015. Findings and recommendations are contained in a Very Large online report here:
user avatar
ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:46 pm
Our district has her stay the whole meeting - we love her being there. She also comes to PTA board meetings to hear what we are doing
user avatar
shadowzwench April 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm
Our school district does have high school student representatives on the school board, but they are usually dismissed from the meetings early which is unfortunate. Our middle school SSC does have two student representatives. They ask some great questions.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 3, 2015 at 9:47 pm
I see very little youth voice in my community. I would love to have students participating on our LCAP Advisory Committee.
user avatar
norburypta March 17, 2015 at 9:30 pm
Many middle and high school's PTAs are formed as PTSAs (the 'S' is for 'Student'), giving roles for the students to fill in the policy making of the association.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 17, 2015 at 10:31 pm
Each year, a high school student is selected to serve as a member of the California State Board of Education. The application for the position is available here:
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 10:31 am
"Students have a lot to say about their schools. When confident teachers and school leaders take time to ask students for their feedback or advice, they generally find it enlightening. "
Students should be encouraged and asked to participate in school decisions. Student councils are not for everyone ,but just like band or choir or drama - the option should be available for them to speak out. Even if their friends aren't a part of the council, they most likely give their opinions to those who are. It's no different from how I am not a senator but still tell him/her how I feel they should vote.
user avatar
Paul Muench October 31, 2014 at 9:33 pm
You should include some quotes form Charles Taylor Kerchner about students being the real workers in education.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 1, 2014 at 10:53 pm
Agreed. Here's a piece he wrote a few years ago for PACE: I also extend on this theme in a "compare and contrast" piece here on Ed100: /schools-are-like-businesses/
user avatar
Arati N June 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm
We have student council leaders participate in school site council meetings at the middle school. They bring student perspective to programs and take information back from the meeting to the students. Great messengers of information flow.
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